SEATTLE — NBA fans in this city are searching for a new team. One of them, a fellow named Rich, is also looking for a new barber.
These two facts are connected.
While waiting for a haircut last week at the Roosevelt Barber Shop in the north end of town, Rich chimed in on a group conversation about the NBA Finals and made a socially fatal misstep. He said he wouldn't mind seeing the Oklahoma City Thunder — the relocated Seattle SuperSonics — win a championship.
He was promptly shown the door.
"This guy jumps into the conversation and says, 'I'm a Thunder fan. What's wrong with Kevin Durant winning a ring?'" barber John Song recalled. "I immediately looked at him, and in my head I was like, 'I can't even talk to this guy.' I just told him to leave."
Said Rich, who declined to give his last name for this story: "It was surprising and a little sad because I'd been a customer there for three years. They're trying to vilify me as an anti-Sonics person. I'd just like to see Kevin Durant succeed. Oklahoma City has already stolen our team. It's over and done for."
That's not a widely held sentiment among those fans whose blood runs green and gold. To them, the pain of losing the Sonics after 41 seasons is as raw now as it was when the team was relocated in 2008. And that the Thunder is now in the Finals — without enduring the growing pains of a typical newly minted team — only gives the knife another twist.
"I was a huge Sonics fan," said Anders Miller, a fishmonger in Pike Place Market who entertains crowds by catching salmon tossed at him from three-point range. "I personally was so devastated by them leaving that I don't even watch the NBA anymore. I didn't watch all season, but now that it's the Finals I watched the game the other night and it stinks."
Durant and reserve forward Nick Collison are the only Thunder players who played for the team in Seattle, though star point guard Russell Westbrook was drafted in the first round by the Sonics in June 2008, days before the relocation became official with the removal of the last legal impediment.
The franchise has moved on.
"We kind of cleaned our slate, I guess, once we got here to Oklahoma City," Durant said. "We still remember everything from the teams in Seattle that were going to the Finals and won the Finals in '79, and the Gary Paytons, the Shawn Kemps, Detlef Schrempfs, guys that played in this organization. But it feels good to have an opportunity to bring something here to Oklahoma City."
The Sonics' saga is one that should resonate with many fans of the Los Angeles Rams, who left behind a legacy of bitterness — particularly toward then-owner Georgia Frontiere — when the NFL team moved from Anaheim to St. Louis after the 1994 season. Five years later the Rams won the Super Bowl . . . something they never did in Southern California.
How deep does the bitterness run today in the Pacific Northwest? According to an ESPN poll, Washington is the only state outside of Florida in which a majority of basketball fans are pulling for LeBron James and the Miami Heat to beat the Thunder in these Finals.
"It's a complete travesty that there's no team here, because Seattle is a basketball city first and foremost," said Adam Brown, producer of the award-winning documentary "Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team," which chronicles the fight to keep the team in Seattle and the bitter relocation of the franchise.
"The Sonics were more closely woven into the Seattle and Washington state community than any of the other pro sports teams, simply because they were here the longest, they had the most success on the court, being in the playoffs almost every year of my lifetime at least, and taking home the only championship in major league pro sports that this city has ever seen. It was the perfect storm of corporate greed and political ineptitude that ripped the team away, and it's a testament to Sonics fans that we're still here making noise."
That noise echoed through the streets of the city's Pioneer Square district Thursday, as a crowd variously estimated at 3,000 to 6,000 packed into Occidental Park for a rally to lure an NBA team. They waved printed yellow placards reading "Bring 'Em Back!" and bounced — it was too crowded to dance — to a live performance by a Seattle band.
Former Sonics stars Payton, Kemp and Schrempf made appearances to raucous cheers, as did the boyish Chris Hansen, the hedge-fund manager who has offered to contribute almost $300 million for a proposed arena south of downtown and $500 million to buy an NBA team. Hansen's bid has gathered momentum, with heavyweights such as Steve Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft, and the Nordstrom family pledging financial support.